Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Nervebreakers' "Hijack the Radio! (Vintage Vinyl & Studio Sessions, Volume One)" (Part One)

This time it's personal.

People think I'm kidding when I say the first four or five bands I ever saw play live, which consisted of guys a couple of years older than me back in middle school and high school, had a bigger impact on me than all of the Big Rock Concerts I went to later. But I'm not. I'd rather stand up front where I can see the people onstage sweat and feel the air from real skins and cones moving my clothes around than go anywhere I have to squint at a Jumbotron to see the performers, and they're still tiny there. Being signed to a label or written about in a magazine doesn't necessarily make a band better than the guys I saw in my local rock dump, playing their hearts out to three punters, the sound guy, the door guy, and the other band.

(What's that you say? "Most local bands suck?" No, dude. Most _bands_ suck.)

So it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that in my world, the Nervebreakers made a bigger impact than the Ramones or the Sex Pistols.

Although my drummer from college claims not to remember this, in January 1978, he called to inform me, "I saw the Sex Pistols and they sucked, but this Dallas band The Nervebreakers opened and were great. You should move to Texas. You can make $10 an hour raking rocks in the road [the only work he figured I was capable of doing], you don't need liability insurance to drive here [I was paying $900 a year with a clean record in New York], and you can drive up to a cop with a beer in your hand and he'll just wave [although if you were in Fort Worth, he'd probably be drunker than you were and kick your ass]." Six months later I showed up on his doorstep in Irving, and I haven't looked back since.

Before my first year in Dallas (where I saw a bunch of Nervebreakers shows and worked with their guitarist Mike Haskins at Peaches Records & Tapes), Fort Worth (where I was present for the Nervebreakers' legendary August 11, 1979 stand at Tootsie's on White Settlement, which ended when the police arrived), and Austin (where I used to spin the Heartbreakers' Live At Max's Kansas City while working at Record Town in Dobie Mall -- I took Tim Kerr's job after he quit -- and got to see the Huns, the Big Boys, and the Clash before decamping for Colorado on an ill-advised whim), punk never resonated for me, although I'd taken plenty of shit in the early '70s from the older guys at the hipi record store where I worked for digging the Stooges, the MC5, the Flamin' Groovies, and Nuggets.

Back home on Long Island, you could hear Patti Smith's "Gloria" and the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" on the New York FM stations. I sold records to a guy who later had his 15 minutes of fame when he cut a punk era 45 called "Death To Disco" under the rubric Jimi Lalumia & His Psychotic Frogs, and I knew another guy called John Del Gaizo that sang with a "punk" band whose demo tape was good for some yuks. But in my backwater town, we were still playing Cream and Allman Brothers songs and trying to figure out what happened to Jeff Beck on Blow By Blow. The Bowery and CBGB's might as well have been a thousand miles away.

It was the Nervebreakers who made me see the connection between the short, sharp shocks of punk and the bands I'd taken shit for liking four or five years earlier. For one thing, Mike Haskins could really play. (Texas just breeds good guitar players. Listen to, say, Zakary Thaks or the Fort Worth Teen Scene compilations and you'll hear teenage axe slingers who copped their first licks from Freddy King when King Records in Houston tried the novel approach of marketing a blues player as a "surf" guitarist.) For another, Barry Kooda, immortalized in Rolling Stone for biting a fish when the Nervebreakers opened for the Pistols, embodied something damn near like rock 'n' roll incarnate, with the emphasis on laughs rather than self-destructive bullshit.

Up front, there was Thom "Tex" Edwards, whose totally blase appearance disguised the fact that he was on fire for the music (still is). "Barbecue" Bob Childress, third in a succession of bass players, was an Uberfan who'd witnessed the Stooges and the New York Dolls up close and personal while attending college in Atlanta, and used to buy the records that Haskins had stashed under the bins at Peaches. In the back, drummer "Crusher" Carl Giesecke sounded like anything but the slumming symphony percussionist that he was.

The Nervebreakers played rock 'n' roll with a mixture of power and insouciance that was both irresistible and straight to the point. I've seen live shows that matched them in their heyday -- Ron Asheton playing Stooges songs with Scott Morgan's Powertrane, the Dictators, the Nomads, the Mooney Suzuki -- but none that ever bettered them. In some ways, they are my favorite band.

Like the MC5, the New York Dolls, and the Dictators, the Nervebreakers utilized the classic Rolling Stones two-guitars-bass-drums-and-standup-frontman format. Like the Dolls, the Dictators, and the Faces, they weren't afraid to let their sensahumour infuse their rockaroll. Like every true band, their story was as much about the bond between friends as it was about the music and mayhem they created together. In my dotage, I'm beginning to believe that, more than rebellion or even triumph -- sorry, Mr. Townshend -- rock 'n' roll is really about friendship: the primacy of the peers we use to define ourselves when we're casting about for an identity to distinguish ourselves from the families where we grew up. The best rock 'n' roll movies -- The Kids Are Alright, MC5: A True Testimonial, We Jam Econo -- are informed by this understanding.

That's why it does us good to see superannuated rockarollas putting aside whatever differences rent 'em asunder back in the day and regrouping for an extended victory lap, as the Stooges have done: it makes us feel as if maybe we, too, can go home again. While the cynic in me originally felt that the Stooges' reunion was merely Iggy's way of cashing in on the realization that the Millennial kids were finally ready for the dum dum boys and their noise in a way that their parents' generation was not, his grace in the wake of Ron Asheton's passing and that of Michael Davis (bassist for the Stooges' "big brother" band, the MC5) makes it seem more like his way of paying a debt to them that brought him, with the manic thrills which he and they brought to their audience purely the surplus value.

Of course, there was never a big beef between the various Nervebreakers the way there was between Iggy and the Asheton brothers (Ron in particular) in the wake of the Stooges' demise. In fact, Mike, Tex, and Barry (and Bob and Carl as well, early on) have all played together off and on in various configurations over the years.

But even though I'd seen Mike and Barry with the Punk Rock Dinosaurs in 2001, it gladdened my heart inordinately to see all five of them playing together on two separate occasions in 2009. While only Barry still looked the part of the badass punk rockarolla, they still sounded every bit as good as my memory of their '70s shows, not to mention the We Want Everything CD (which languished in the can for 14 years before it was released) and the equally impressive "fan club" CD-Rs I bought from Haskins a decade or so ago. (The ten-minute "Gloria" from their first Dallas performance -- 1976 at the Villager Inn on Lemmon Avenue -- is a particularly vivid example of what they were about.)

All of this is by way of explaining why the news that Get Hip would be releasing Hijack the Radio! (Vintage Vinyl & Studio Sessions, Volume One) in April was particularly welcome at mi casa. While copies were originally planned to be available in time for the Nervebreakers' appearances at SXSW 2012, circumstances (few vinyl pressing plants, greatly increased demand for product -- a good problem to have, if you're in the business) intervened. So now, we wait.

Read Part Two here...


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